Year Round Programs Igniting the Spark: A Year in Review from the Director of Teen Education

By Young Judaea

By Erica Cohen, Director of Teen Education

As I reflect on this past year, I can’t help but feel incredibly fortunate to be part of something truly special. Working with teens has always been a passion of mine (I always say I’ve been doing this since I was one, which is now about 20 years!), but this year has been especially rewarding. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of our teens’ Jewish journey during a particularly complex time, and witness their growth. It has been nothing short of inspiring. 

Seeing how our teens harness their leadership and engage with their traditions and community is heartwarming. It’s not just about teaching; it’s about guiding and nurturing their curiosity, their questions, and their desire to connect with something greater than themselves.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my role has been witnessing the excitement that comes with planning meaningful events and activities. Whether it’s a retreat, a volunteer project, or a discussion group, seeing our teens get excited about their Jewish identity and heritage is truly infectious. Their enthusiasm reminds me why I do what I do—to help ignite that spark of curiosity, passion and lifelong engagement.

This year, we’ve had some incredible moments. From deep discussions about Jewish values to fun-filled events celebrating holidays and traditions, every interaction has been an opportunity to learn and grow together. Led by the National Mazkirut, we pivoted as a movement to refocus on Israel after October 7, and they found powerful ways to weave in the complexities, nuance, and growing tensions. More than ever, we sat at the crossroads of Zionism, Pluralism and Tikkun Olam, demonstrating that these are stronger when they are in harmony, and relieving, perhaps even for a moment, the societal pressure to choose among them.

What’s been particularly rewarding is the sense of community that has developed. We’ve created a space where teens feel supported, valued, and empowered to explore their Jewish identity on their own terms. It’s about creating an environment where they feel safe to ask questions, express doubts, and ultimately find their own path. Led by our Regional Mazkiriot in the Northeast, Midwest and Texas, teens planned and led programs for their peers throughout the year. In the spring, teens in LA and Atlanta heard the call to action and began to organize to bring YJ Teens to their communities. We will be starting the coming year with a record 31 Teen Leaders across the movement, and we are certain this is only the beginning.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about what’s to come. We have some amazing plans in the pipeline—more engaging programs, meaningful discussions, and opportunities for our teens to connect with each other in new and exciting ways. I can’t wait to see how they continue to evolve, both individually and as a community. We are building a staffing structure to support our regional growth, and developing new organizational partnerships that will elevate our ability to meet this important moment.

I am extremely grateful to have an incredible professional team who worked hard this year to ensure that the teens were supported and set up for success! Amit Castel joined us in September as the first Young Judaea Central Shaliach in over ten years, and is serving as our director of Israel Education. Our year-round team this year included Allegra Levone, Barak Levy, Lea Kamil, Eitan Weinkle, Chaim Steinberg, Sara Kasler and a number of event and convention staff. Our work would not be possible without this tremendous team.

So, here’s to another year of learning, growing, and celebrating our shared journey. Working with teens has been a privilege, and I’m grateful for the chance to be a part of something so special. Together, we’re shaping the future of our community and helping our teens find meaning and joy in their Jewish identity.

Thank YOU to the teens who are part this movement for allowing me to join you on your journey. Here’s to many more inspiring moments ahead!

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